Special Ops Helo Squadron Shuts Down After Half-Century of Service

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Members of Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component, from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 84, conduct night operations in Iraq. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph W. Pfaff)

The U.S. Navy marked the disestablishment of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 84 with a March 19 ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, celebrating the unit’s storied history stretching back to the Vietnam War.

The Navy announced last year that it was shutting down the HSC-84 “Red Wolves” as a cost-saving measure. One of the services two helicopter squadrons, both in the Navy Reserve and dedicated to special operations support, the Red Wolves trace their history to the famed “Seawolves” of Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron (HAL) 3, which was established in 1967 as the Navy’s first and only helicopter attack unit in response to the unique mission of close air support for Navy SEALs and riverine forces operating in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.

Flying UH-1 Huey helicopter gunships, the Seawolves would go on to fly more than 120,000 combat missions and become the most decorated squadron in the Vietnam War.

“By no small measure, HSC-84’s accomplishments are a very proud part of the Navy Reserve and Naval Aviation history,” said Vice Adm. Robin Braun, Chief of Navy Reserve, during the ceremony.

HAL-3 was disestablished following the end of the war in March 1972, a couple weeks shy of its fifth anniversary. Four years later, realizing the need for gunship units trained in special warfare, the Navy established within the reserves Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadrons (HAL) 4 and 5 in 1976 and 1977, respectively.

HSC-84Both squadrons continued flying Huey aircraft until the late 1980s, when they were redesignated Helicopter Combat Support (Special) Squadrons (HCS) 4 and 5 and began operating HH-60H Seahawks as the only Navy helicopter squadrons dedicated to supporting special warfare operations and combat search and rescue (CSAR) as primary missions. The unique qualifications granted to HCS-4 “Red Wolves” and HCS-5 “Firehawks” personnel often resulted in members spending the bulk of their careers between the two units. Both squadrons typically deployed in two-aircraft detachments capable of supporting combat operations worldwide on 72-hour notice.

HCS-4 deployed detachments to Saudi Arabia in September 1990, providing round-the-clock CSAR coverage in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, marking the first use of the HH-60H in combat. The squadron deployed again in September 1994 as part of Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, and in January 1996 underwent its first at-sea deployment when it placed one helicopter aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73) for six months in support of Operation Joint Endeavor in the Balkans.

Both squadrons deployed in March 2003 in support of Operations Noble Eagle and Iraqi Freedom. For the next decade, the Red Wolves maintained a four-aircraft detachment in central Iraq, providing special warfare support in direct assaults, insertion and extraction of special operations forces, armed overwatch, reconnaissance and logistical support in the movement of personnel and cargo.

The squadrons were redesignated HSC-84 and HSC-85 in October 2006. From early 2012 through October 2015, the Red Wolves redeployed throughout the Central Command area of responsibility, recording nearly 5,000 flight hours while executing 1,236 mission rehearsals and flight events.

Fiscal constraints initially led the Navy to propose in the fiscal year 2016 budget the decommissioning of both squadrons and creation of two Tactical Support Units (TSU), which would help train fleet squadrons to provide special operations support. But budget language restricting decommissions spurred the Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command to devise a new plan which retains the Firehawks as a dedicated special operations support squadron while creating the two TSU’s, one of which will be based in Norfolk, and the other in San Diego. Meanwhile, Red Wolves personnel will have the option to transfer to either HSC-85 or the TSUs.

“The Red Wolves will live on through you,” said Cmdr. Quinton Packard, HSC-84 Commanding Officer, looking out on an audience made up mostly of Red Wolves alumni. “The final chapter hasn’t been written. You who are standing up the TSU will be writing it. You who will put on the Firehawk patch and keep the mission alive will be writing it. And you who will be walking these very halls in two weeks with [the Norfolk-based] HSC-11 will be writing it. The legacy continues.”

Lt. Wes Holzapfel is a public affairs officer for Commander, Naval Air Force Reserve.

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Maintenance division personnel service two HAL-3 choppers. The squadron flew gunship helicopters in support of patrol boats in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Navy photo by PH1 Dan Dodd)